Rob Watson and Gary Robbins are two names that members of the Canadian running community know well, but they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence. After all, Watson is known as a road runner and marathoner and Robbins is an ultrarunner. However, the two men recently teamed up specifically because of their differing focuses in running. Heading into 2020, Watson made a New Year’s resolution to complete a 100K run, while Robbins was looking to run a 10K time trial — goals well outside of the comfort zones of both men. After working together, they both reached their goals, with Watson successfully running a 100K in late December and Robbins beating his 10K PB in early January.
Trying something new
Robbins says he believes the fall is a great time for runners to switch focus and get out of their comfort zones. The race season is over and the end of the year is fast-approaching, Robbins says, giving runners the chance to mix things up and try new things. Over the past few years, Robbins has been dealing with a foot injury that prevented him from running on flat terrain. He recovered from this injury in November 2019, opening the door to a possible shakeup in the fall of 2020. After giving it some thought, he decided to shoot for a sub-35-minute 10K run — far faster than his PB of 36:01, a time that he set 12 years ago.
Acknowledging that he had “lost a step or two on the speed I used to have,” he began searching for a coach to help him train for such a short race. While Robbins and Watson were aware of one another and had met in passing on a few occasions, they didn’t know each other well. What Robbins did know was that Watson was training for a 100K.
“I reached out to Rob and said what I wanted to do,” Robbins says. “Then I said, ‘We’re entering each other’s worlds right now.'” Robbins and Watson both live in B.C. and they’re both experienced runners and coaches (Robbins coaches at Ridgeline Athletics and Watson is a Mile2Marathon coach), which made teaming up a no-brainer. “We started working together, and it took on a life of its own,” Robbins continues. “We spent the last three months training and forging a friendship.”
Watson echoes Robbins’s words, noting how thrilled he was to hear from the ultrarunner. “When Gary reached out for training for a 10k, I was super excited and nervous,” Watson says. “It was also super flattering to have someone of his stature come to me for guidance. Working together really elevated the whole experience.”
From October to January, Watson and Robbins worked together closely, helping one another through foreign territory. For Watson, this meant going twice as far as he had ever gone before. “I’ve raced 50K, but never anywhere near 100K,” he says. Unlike Robbins, who was working toward a specific time, Watson says all he wanted to do was finish the run. “I wasn’t going for performance, I just wanted to make sure I was capable of running for eight-plus hours.”
In Robbins’s case, he says he had never done any speedwork before teaming with Watson. “I had literally zero experience with a training program like this,” he says. “Even 12 years ago when I ran 36 minutes, I didn’t do speedwork.” Robbins adds that, in the last decade, the shortest race he lined up for was a 30K. As well-versed as he is in the world of super long runs, the short and fast stuff is completely alien to him.
Watson saw this struggle firsthand after Robbins completed his first workout in the 10K build in October. “It was really funny because Gary won’t bat an eye at going out for 24 hours,” Watson says. “But the first workout I gave him was 200s, and afterwards he was like, ‘My legs aren’t working, my calves are destroyed.’ He was so torn. It’s a different type of intensity when you go shorter.”
Watson says it took them a couple of weeks to figure things out in training. “Gary came in with such a different background than mine,” he says. “He has this huge engine, but his body wasn’t used to hammering such hard and intense runs. So we had to find that sweet spot.” They eventually did find the sweet spot, and Watson says Robbins proceeded to “hammer all of his workouts.” For Watson, Robbins provided a proper structure for ultra training, which he admits he wasn’t following before their partnership. After a few months of work, their training culminated in a 100K debut for Watson in late December and a 10K time trial for Robbins in early January.
For Watson’s run, he followed a 7K loop near Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver, and it started off really well. “I went through the marathon in 3:02 and I was like, ‘This is chill,'” he says. “I hit 50K in 3:38. But by 60K, my body was like, ‘Nope.'” Like Watson said of Robbins, he had the engine required to make it through this challenge, but his body wasn’t used to taking such a long, drawn-out beating. As much as he wanted to quit, though, he forced himself to carry on.
“I spent 40K dragging my useless corpse up and down the beach. It was a slow, pathetic breakdown, but it was cool, and that was the whole part of doing it — to experience it for better or for worse.” He finished the run in 8:06, and he says that, now that he has pushed through and succeeded with the mental game, he wants to return for another go to conquer the distance physically.
Robbins’s run a couple of weeks later was 10 times shorter than Watson’s, but still extremely painful. Running alongside Watson, Robbins clicked off kilometre after kilometre at sub-3:30 pace, making it to the line in 34:47 to smash his previous best time. Then, he collapsed to the ground, completely spent. “Gary’s done Barkley Marathons and the craziest ultra races,” Watson laughs. “But then he does this 10K and it reduced him to fall to the road. I had to sit there and wave a truck around him. It’s just more proof that this sport can introduce you to so many different types of discomfort and suffering.”
Neither Robbins nor Watson are sure what their next challenges will be, but they both say they plan on sticking with unfamiliar distances in training. Robbins says he looks forward to continuing with speedwork and potentially shooting to break his new 10K PB, and Watson hopes to give ultrarunning another go at some point. Whatever they choose, it will be inspiring to see them in action again, venturing outside their comfort zones and pushing their limits.